The Autobiography of Leroy Looper

by Leroy Looper on December 4, 2006

(Ed note: Widely regarded as the “Father of the Tenderloin,” this is the first of ten installments of Looper’s autobiography)

My name is Leroy Branch Looper. I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1924, November the 24th. My mother’s name is Loveline Branch Looper, my father’s name is or was Roy E. Looper. We had difficulties in Philadelphia and my mother and father separated and we went to Washington, D.C. I was raised in Washington, D.C. I went to elementary school and like most kids during the depression, had many difficulties, did a lot of fighting and did not do well in school, did not learn well in school, and was arrested several times for stealing and things of that sort and for running away from home. When I look back over my life for some of the joyful moments, one image always does focus. Aunt Carrie’s big Black ugly face smiling at me very tenderly and saying that I was a good boy. Her smile was like a star lighting up a cosy night. Aunt Carrie did not give away smiles! My aunt lived in Clickes Alley.

Let me describe the relationship of the Alley to the rest of Washington, D.C. The Alley was considered the cesspool of iniquity~ It was one of the many Casbahs of alleys in Washington, D.C. It was a few winding blocks from the great Howard Theater where all the great entertainers played and the center of all Washington’s night life. The Alley was the drop out center for all the used to be’s or the has been’s. Mostly pimps, and gamblers and alcoholics. Entertainers, misplaced Southerners who didn’t quite adjust to the so-called North. The Alley was coal Black – not a white in sight. There was a whole segment of can heat drinkers who made money by working for the junk man. But the main industry was numbers, corn whiskey and prostitution. All this was carried out with great respectability. On Sundays the Alley became alive in a totally different way. People got dressed up in their Sunday best, ready for God. Jesus, everybody had the pure 100% of upper mobility. Playing out the American Dream!

As a youngster all the things I have just described were not visible to me. All I saw as a 7-8-9 year old was my Aunt Carrie, Uncle Howard, cousins Elizabeth and Carrie. Aunt Carrie was a sanctuary and the Alley’s official kitchen. She fed about 90% of the people, mostly on credit. But she had her own record book on all her clients. Her help consisted of two unmarried daughters who no one really wanted. One was a thirty-five year old virgin named Lillian, who was jet Black and didn’t have a good word for nobody. Cousin Elizabeth was big and fat and a jolly good person who was fortunate enough to have a daughter who was big and fat, whose claim to fame was that she received her high school diploma.

Aunt Carrie was my favorite person. She was a big, Black, uneducated person who was forever olds, as I can remember. Her eyes flashed fire when she was angry. She neither drank nor smoked. She didn’t allow any cursing in her house. No whiskey of any kind. Her house must have been the only house in the Alley that didn’t have whiskey in it. The house next door to her was a corn joint which kept her upset.

Aunt Carrie’s husband, who really wasn’t her husband, was considered a real catch for any of the ladies in the Alley. Mr. Howard was a beautiful, beautiful person and I loved him. We all loved him. He worked for the City, which meant that he had a paycheck coming every two weeks. Mr. Howard was a kind person who loved to drink and at night loved to play his guitar. On Sundays one of the math events of the day would be all the dressed-up men, after leaving church, would steal away from their wives and come to the Alley to buy corn whiskey, get drunk and sing down home Negro Spirituals. Mr. Howard would play his guitar for them. Aunt Carrie had a bunk house build next to the outhouse for Mr. Howard so he could drink in peace. But nobody was allowed there but him.

Strange as it may seem, Aunt Carrie’s house was my oasis. My home away from home! I loved Aunt Carrie. Aunt Carrie was famous for not giving up or allowing a penny to escape her apron string. But when I was in trouble I would go straight to her and she always would help me.

Speaking about nights. The Alley at night was not the same place. People who would not be caught dead there in the daytime would creep in at night and let the shit hang out. The Alley’s night reputation was dangerous! White police would send only the baddest Black police in there in time of trouble. Only murder had a priority. Robberies and stabbings were accepted as part of the night life. The Alley held a great attraction for the so-called straight person.

“Immiinent danger!” All the don’ts resided in the Alley. Whiskey, women, dope, numbers, and gambling. Most of the people came before it was too dark and stayed until it was light. Only the brave would venture out in the late quiet darkness. The only group who had a license to move around unmolested was the acknowledged hustlers who had agreements with each other. The house across the street from Aunt Carrie belonged to Brother Wally the Number Man and he had a store downstairs. Next door to us was Brother Wally’s sister who sold corn whiskey. Down the street was Paul and his brothers who were Sister Wally’s sons, who had a gambling place. Mr. Price who was the husband of Aunt Carrie’s daughter, Little Carrie, had a corn joint which was considered top notch because he sold country corn and rubbing alcohol. He also was a gambler and in the trucking business. Brother Wally’s girlfriend on the other end of the Alley who was High Yellow had a deformed hand but was pretty also, had a corn joint plus some prostitution. It appeared to me like everybody was connected to each other in some strange way. But all had the facade of respectability.

Sister Wally’s son Dirk was my best friend and he was the one who years later stuck the first needle in my arm and put the first heroin in my nose. Dirk was truly a child of the Alley! His whole orientation in life was to be a lover of pleasure! A giver of thrills. His greatest dream was to become a top pimp and hustler.

It was Dirk who turned me on to drugs. It was Dirk who finally pushed me over into freaking off with women. It was Dirk who introduced me to selling drugs. I’m not blaming Dirk for anything, I’m only saying that he gave the push onto the road that I would stay on for eighteen long miserable years. Allthe years I spent in prison was for drugs. Nothing else! On one of my trips to Kentucky to kick my habit I saw my friend Dirk! Boy was I surprised to see him. He was still smiling. He was still bragging about the fact that he gave me my first shot. He had no remorse. I didn’t expect any. It was all in the game. Dirk was doing about 15 to 20 years. He was still looking for his mother to bail him out. The Dirks of the world don’t talk about rehabilitation. They talk about the joys of the life and how it should be legalized. Maybe the Dirks of the world are right! I made a statement that those eighteen years were all miserable. That’s a lie I did in fact have fun sucking, fucking and getting high! But the price was too high. Dirk wasn’t all bad. He made a lot of women happy. He was the pleasure man.

When people found out that you were from Clickes Alley, they were immediately repulsed by your presence. They knew that you had been overexposed to the worst elements in D. C. They also took it for granted that you couldn’t be trusted. Most of their suspicions had some validity to it. You can’t expose people to that form of living and expect them to come away from it smelling like a rose. Even though I considered myself part of the Alley, the Alley-ites only partly accepted me because of my relationship with my aunt, plus my continuingly being busted by the police for one thing or the other.

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